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Jogayle Howard, National Zoological Park,
Yan Huang, China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda,
Pengyan Wang, China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda,
Desheng Li, China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda,
Guiquan Zhang, China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda,
Rong Hou, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding,
Zhihe Zhang, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding,
Barbara S. Durrant, Conservation and Research for Endangered Species,
Rebecca Spindler, Toronto Zoo,
Hemin Zhang, China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda,
Anju Zhang, Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Foundation,
David E. Wildt, National Zoological Park
Historically, the breeding of giant pandas in ex situ programmes has been difficult due to behavioural incompatibility and interanimal aggression. Because some individuals fail to mate naturally, the potential loss of valuable genes is a major concern to effective genetic management (see Chapter 21). Consistently successful artificial insemination (AI) would allow incorporating genetically valuable males with behavioural or physical anomalies into the gene pool. This strategy becomes even more powerful when used in the context of a genome resource bank (GRB), an organised repository of cryopreserved biomaterials (tissue, blood, DNA and sperm) (see Chapter 7). The use of sperm cryopreservation and AI allows the movement of genes among zoos and breeding centres without needing to transfer animals, which is both stressful and costly.
‘Assisted breeding’ refers to the tools and techniques associated with helping a pair of animals propagate, from AI to embryo transfer to cloning, among others (Howard, 1999; Pukazhenthi & Wildt, 2004). With the exception of AI, there is not much need for most other assisted-breeding techniques for the giant panda. As will be demonstrated here, AI is quite adequate for dealing with most cases of infertility or with helping to maintain adequate gene diversity in the captive population. In fact, the major breeding facilities, especially the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda (hereafter referred to as the Wolong Breeding Centre) and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, routinely use AI to increase pregnancy success.
Increasing breeding success in the giant panda requires a better understanding of its complex reproductive biology. We know that the female is typically mono-oestrus during a breeding season which occurs from February to May (within and outside China). Behavioural and physiological changes associated with pro-oestrus and oestrus last one to two weeks, during which the female exhibits proceptive behaviours, such as scent marking, to advertise her sexual receptivity (Lindburg et al., 2001). During the peri-ovulatory interval, receptive behaviours (e.g. tail-up lordotic posture) climax with copulation generally occurring over a one- to three-day interval. Birthing occurs from June to October with a gestation of 85 to 185 days (Zhu et al., 2001). This unusually wide gestation span is due to the phenomenon of delayed implantation, a varied interval before the conceptus implants in the uterus and begins foetal development. The driving force behind implantation in this species is unknown. The giant panda also experiences pseudopregnancy, whereby the female exhibits behavioural, physiological and hormonal changes similar to pregnancy.
Behavioural and physiological cues associated with both pregnancy and pseudopregnancy include decreased appetite, nest-building and cradling behaviours, vulvar swelling and colouration, mammary gland enlargement and lethargy. Additionally, temporal and quantitative progesterone patterns (tracked by assessing urinary hormone by-products and progestins) are indistinguishable between pregnancy and pseudopregnancy. Therefore, no definitive test currently exists for identifying pregnant from pseudopregnant giant pandas.
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